SHE might like to downplay her importance to every team she’s played on, but Jodee Sontay has been one of the SBL’s great warriors over 350 games now as she becomes the 12th woman to ever reach the mark.
Sontay will celebrate her 350-game milestone in the Women’s SBL this Saturday night when the Cockburn Cougars host the Perth Redbacks at Wally Hagan Stadium.
While she might only be 14 games into her career at the Cougars following stints at the Joondalup (then Wanneroo) Wolves, East Perth Eagles and Warwick (then Stirling) Senators, it’s already a move to Cockburn that has revitalised her passion for basketball.
Because of that she couldn’t imagine wanting to celebrate her milestone with any other teammates and as she reflects, she is rightfully proud to reach the 350-game milestone.
“It is something I’m really proud of. I actually didn’t even know coming into this season that it was a chance to happen, but Thommo mentioned it earlier in the year and I don’t think too many women have actually reached 350 games,” Sontay said.
“The greatest thing for me is knowing that I might not be the biggest contributor to points, but still having coaches me want to play for their teams. That’s something that I am really proud of for coaches to still see that even in my twilight years I’m still able to contribute something to the court.”
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Sontay still has fond memories of 20 years ago as a young WABL player going along to the now demolished Joondalup Basketball Stadium and watching the Wolves SBL players in action and never imagining she could ever manage to play one game at that level.
But then by the time she was 16, she broke through to play 15 games in her rookie season at the Wolves in 2001. She would go on to play 167 games with the Wolves over the next eight years but then life took her to England where she spent the next couple of years in Europe.
Once she returned home, she signed with the East Perth Eagles in 2011 and that team would end up reaching the only Grand Final of Sontay’s career where they came up short against the Willetton Tigers on a frantic finish where Kate Malpass stole the in-bounds pass for the winner.
Sontay settled in well at the Eagles and would spend seven seasons there for another 147 games before spending the past two seasons with the Senators, reaching the playoffs on both occasions, and now joining the Cougars in 2019.
The 34-year-old continues to be one of the great competitors in the competition and that’s why even though her numbers remain solid at 6.0 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.9 assists a game, her impact on the Cougars remains significantly more than they suggest.
She now rightfully takes her place as one of only 12 women to reach 350 games in the league and only one of three current players – behind Casey Mihovilovich and her long-time teammate Nicole Jorre De St Jorre.
“You have to make a lot of sacrifices at the end of the day to play at this level and it’s not just me, but the whole team make sacrifices and the coaches make sacrifices,” Sontay said.
“I actually never thought playing SBL would be possible when I was younger. But as a WABL kid, I would go and watch games and I would love it but no way did I think I could ever play one game myself out there, let alone 350.
“It just never even entered into my mind but I’ve always just tried to make sure that I could be the best teammate that I could be knowing that I am aware of my strengths and weaknesses, and the things that I can contribute I always keep providing the best I can. But as a little kid, it would have never entered my mind I’d be sitting here having played 350 games.”
Looking back, Sontay initially had to just bang down the door to be able to switch from netball to basketball and once she did, she realised her best way to contribute to her team was by being good at everything, and being able to contribute in every area and at both ends of the floor.
She’s now been able to establish a 350-game career out of those traits.
“I started playing netball when I was a real little kid and I would play in the defence at GD or GK so that transition into basketball was a little bit different after that but just knowing that it’s the one percenters that I can bring to any team is what I’ve taken a lot of pride in,” she said.
“What I try to bring to every game is a bit of tenacity and to try and shut players down as best as I can.
“I guess I’m a bit of a smaller big and I do have to play on some bigger players so I just do whatever I can to try and get my team over the line. Whether that happens or not is another story because I’d be afraid to work out the win-loss record over my 350 games.”
When Sontay realised that the direction the Senators were heading in for 2019 might not be something she necessarily wanted to be part of, she had a decision to make to either retire from the SBL or to find a fourth team in her career to play with.
Once she sat down and spoke with Cougars coach Megan Thompson she instantly knew it was a move she wanted to make to play with Cockburn with the added bonus of former teammates Haylee De Sousa, Akim Lual, Steph Jones and Kisha Lee all being there.
“Last year it was a decision I had to make if I was going to keep playing or retire but one thing I have really tried to do this year is take care of myself off the court so that I know I can perform as well as I possibly can,” Sontay said.
“That’s something that I’ve concentrated on more than ever this year and I still think I feel probably 330 of those 350 games with my body, but I still rock up to games and I still have the fire in the belly and I still get excited to play. And I think while that’s still the case, then I want to keep playing if a coach wanted me and that’s what happened with Thommo at Cockburn this year.”
What makes Sontay know that it’s been the right decision to continue her career at the Cougars is how much she is enjoying being part of basketball at Cockburn even if the record of 3-11 suggests it’s been a tough year where injuries continue to play havoc with their season.
“I turn up to training this year and I never feel like it’s a drag. It’s always such a positive environment, Cockburn is such a great family club and Thommo has just been amazing,” she said.
“She is a strength-based coach at the end of the day and to have somebody like that coaching you makes it valuable and I’m loving it even if we haven’t won the amount of games we would have hoped.
“Whilst I still have the passion to be there I’ll always want to be there or unless nobody wants me anymore.”
A milestone like reaching 350 games does provide the opportunity for some reflection, but for Sontay it’s tough to pinpoint any specific highlights and even that Grand Final with East Perth in 2011 isn’t something she overly looks on with too much fondness.
“The Grand Final isn’t really a big highlight for me. It was my first season back from being overseas and I guess because I’m not that naturally a talented player and a lot of what I do is a result of the work I put in off the court,” Sontay said.
“So not doing a pre-season that year and joining a team that was already established meant there were a lot of other girls that got us to that Grand Final and not necessarily the things that I did. So for me that Grand Final doesn’t stick out to me that much as a highlight, but it’s hard to pinpoint what things do.
“Last year at Stirling was a highlight though. We did lose seven in-a-row at one point and then we ended up making the quarter finals and playing against the Redbacks. We had a big chance to not make finals at all, so to turn that season around with that group of girls was awesome so that was more relevant as a highlight than losing that Grand Final.
“But when you think back over 350 games, it’s hard to pinpoint too many highlights even though I’m sure there have been plenty if people bring things up with me, and there’s been plenty of regular season wins that will stick with me for different reasons.”
Sontay does make sure she cherishes every win in her career now because she knows how hard they are to come by.
That’s why last week’s upset of the fourth placed Willetton Tigers to snap a 10-game losing streak meant the world to Sontay and her Cougars teammates given the challenges they continue to have to deal with in 2019.
“Thommo talks to us about following the process and sticking with the guidelines that she’s given us, and last week we did that. We followed the process and we ran our offences, and we got good shots and we played hard defence,” Sontay said.
“That was huge for us and I think we celebrated after the game like it was a Grand Final, but you have to enjoy your wins and I still make sure I celebrate any win. Winning is a good feeling and it is good to wake up the next morning after a win. But I must admit I’ve had to learn to be a good loser.
“That game last week, we came together after a rough week and just stuck together and stuck to the process to get over the line. I couldn’t be prouder of the girls for that and they are a great bunch of girls to do it with. They are really fantastic.”
What’s bigger than any wins or highlights for Sontay as she reflects on a career that began in 2001, though, is the lifelong bonds she has developed with teammates and coaches along that journey.
“The relationships that you develop with your teammates is something that’s on-going and it’s not just something you keep for that season you are together. Some of my best friends have come through basketball and some of my best mates have been coaches I’ve had in the past,” she said.
“It’s about more than what’s on the court and it’s the dinners, the drinks afterwards and the hanging out. The social side has always been a big part of enjoying playing basketball and what makes it worthwhile, and it still is.”
There’s no reason to suggest that Sontay couldn’t continue to play on in 2020 given her body is remaining sound and she remains a strong contributor on the court, but she’s not ready to commit to anything just yet.
“While I still have the passion and the fire in the belly, I’d like to keep playing. At the end of every season, it’s always a consideration but you do have to put it in perspective with work and personal life,” Sontay said.
“I know I’m not the most talented player and everything I can do on the court is only possible from the work I do off the court so it becomes about more than just two nights of training a week. If I’m able to manage that but still give my team 100 per cent, and if they want me, then it’s possible that I’ll play.
“But at this point I need to take every game one game at a time, and see if I can walk the next day. If I can keep moving, then I’ll certainly consider playing on but it’s not something I’ll lock in at the moment.”